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My favorite political novels

Last month at an event in Boston, I saw a friend and our conversation, as so often happens, centered on books. What good books we’ve read recently, and old favorites. Since we also share a passion for political activism, it’s no surprise that we quickly focused in on political fiction.
“I keep a list of my favorites, I told her.”
“Send it to me?” she asked.
“I’ll put it up on my blog,” I said. “Then people can add their own favorites.”

I’m defining political fiction as work that illuminates injustice by dramatizing conflicts of class, race, gender and the environment. A literature that, rather than the common practice of using the political landscape as background for a dramatic story, is actually in opposition to the status quo. Literature that just might encourage the reader to look more critically at our own neighborhood, our own world, and work to make it better.

Here are my favorites. Some are old; some are new. What are yours?

Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett
The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir
Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Civil Wars by Rosellen Brown
Little Bee by Chris Cleeve
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow
The Ministry of Special Cases, Nathan Englander
The Guest of Honor by Nadine Gordimer
First Papers by Laura Hobson
Solar Storms by Linda Hogan
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
Like Trees, Walking, Ravi Howard
Small Wars by Sadie Jones
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
The Four Gated City by Doris Lessing
The Chosen Place; The Timeless People by Paule Marshall
White Dog Fell from the Sky, Eleanor Morse
A Stranger in the Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher
The Last Town on Earth, Thomas Mullen
Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien
Strange as this Weather has Been, Ann Pancake
Caucasia by Danzy Senna
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Ties in Blood by Gillian Slovo
The Submission, Amy Waldman
Martyrs Crossing by Amy Wilentz


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Message from a Blue Jay: a review

A couple of months ago I was invited to participate in a Virtual Book Tour for Faye Rapoport DesPres’ debut book, a memoir-in-essays titled Message from a Blue Jay: Love, Loss, and One Writer’s Journey Home. I didn’t know how to respond. I don’t know Faye, and I mostly read and write fiction, dipping into nonfiction primarily as research.

On the other hand, I wanted to be helpful, to pass on the generosity other authors have shown me. So I went to the author’s website and learned that the book “examines a modern life marked by a passion for the natural world, a second chance at love, unexpected loss, and the search for a place she can finally call home.” I was intrigued and agreed to read the manuscript and participate in the Book Tour.

I’m so glad I said yes.

DesPres’ twenty essays are beautifully structured, weaving encounters with animals and landscape, with meditations on growing older, on illness and complicated loss. Whether her subject is the availability of Wi-Fi at Walden Pond, her Holocaust survivor father sobbing when his car kills a deer, rescuing caterpillars on a back country road, finding love, or the betrayal of her body, DesPres writes with warmth, clarity, and a sharp eye for details both physical and emotional.

I was struck by the author’s courage in naming not-so-pretty emotions – claiming and examining them with the same detail and curiosity she brings to a blue jay standing in the road. As a fiction writer I’m used to mining myself and everything around me for stories. But in fiction we can change the identifiers and let imagination transform the facts. It takes a different kind of bravery to put your real face, your unadulterated self, on the page and claim it.

As promised, the natural world is always present in these pages. It might be magpies quarreling with squirrels, a red canoe leaving its triangular wake and ripples on a pond, the pure white feral cats who sleeps 15 feet up in a hollow tree, or – in my favorite essay in the collection – a conversation with a blue jay in the January rain. These essays are lyrical and poignant. They weave memory and yearning. They are reflective and surprisingly hopeful.

Like I said, I'm glad I said yes. For all the above reasons, and because reading this book reminded me of the benefits - the pleasure - of reading outside my usual comfort zone. Thank you, Faye Rapoport DesPres.

This blog posting is the last stop on Faye Rapoport DesPres's Virtual Book Tour. The publisher is offering a personalized, signed copy of Message from a Blue Jay plus swag to the winner of their Virtual Tour Giveaway. We invite you to leave a comment below to enter. For more chances to enter, please visit these Facebook pages and click on the Giveaway Tab:
Buddhapuss Inc.
Message From a Blue Jay.

 
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Life and art

Art and life

The Supreme Court recently declined to hear Hedges v. Obama, a case challenging a section of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This section permits the U.S. military to kidnap U.S. citizens and hold them indefinitely in military detention centers without access to lawyers or trials or any of the other rights we think of as ours, in a so-called democratic country. In this ruling, attorney Carl Mayer writes, the Supreme Court “has turned its back on precedent dating back to the Civil War era that holds that the military cannot police the streets of America.”

This ruling throws a minor theoretical monkey wrench into my second novel, due to be published early next year. ON HURRICANE ISLAND tells the story of a U.S. citizen kidnapped by the military and taken to a secret detention center for interrogation. A second character, a woman already imprisoned at the facility, is an attorney working on a case very much like Hedges v. Obama.

When I started writing this novel four years ago, I figured that “extraordinary rendition” on U.S. soil was a possibility, but it was still a “what if” in my writer’s brain. After the novel sold, I contacted Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitution Rights and an expert in this area of law, and asked him for a “blurb.” He read the manuscript, and wrote,

“On Hurricane Island is a chilling, Kafkaesque story about what happens when the United States does to citizens at home what it has done to others abroad. Meeropol puts the reader right into the middle of these practices through characters about whom you really care and a story you can’t put down.”

By refusing to consider hear Hedges v. Obama, and to revisit the issue of detention of citizens by the military, the Supreme Court ruling moves my “fictional” nightmare scenario that much closer to reality.

Sure, I can probably “fix” the manuscript. I can tweak the text and maybe add a sentence or two about the recent ruling. That’s not the big problem. The big problem for me, for all of us, is what we can do to take back our country.

(for more information about Hedges v. Obama, click on Truthdig.com link to the left)  Read More 
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Taking a break

People assume I’m retired. After all, my hair is graying and I no longer get in my car every morning and drive to the children’s hospital where I worked as a nurse practitioner. I no longer dress like a professional, although I was never so good at that part. Instead, I get up every morning – including weekends – and write, usually in my pajamas or workout clothes, mug of coffee at my elbow.

“I’m not retired,” I correct them. “I write every day. Writing is my job, my work.”

The problem with the “job” of writing fiction is that before now, I never took a break. My characters accompanied me on every trip away. Beach vacation or mountains, road trip or writing conference, they came along. When my laptop wasn’t handy, my notebook was right there.

But this week is different. I’m at a natural breathing spot. My second novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND, is in production, for publication early in 2015. The third manuscript is with my agent, awaiting her brilliant editing attention. The fourth is well into the third trimester of internal gestation, but not quite ready for the page. The essay I’ve been working on is finished too, and sent off to find its way in the world.

The setting is right for a break as well. I’m in Brooklyn, helping out during school vacation week. My granddaughter is six; her brother is almost two. They are delightful and exhausting. Like all the other graying grandparents, I’m hanging out at multiple playgrounds, lugging scooters and snacks, reading Ivy & Bean, negotiating play dates, and drawing pictures with 36 fine point markers.

Do I miss my characters this week? Nope. Not even a little.  Read More 
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Fiction and research: firing the imagination

I’ve been thinking about doing research for fiction. Partly this has been on my mind since Michael White’s craft program a couple of weeks ago, when he talked about how historical research can fire the imagination. I’ve admired Michael’s novels (especially A Brother’s Blood, Soul Catcher, Garden of Martyrs) and loved hearing stories about the ways in which research plus imagination breathed life into his stories and his characters.

My own fiction tends to be contemporary and my experiences with research have been with interviews rather than libraries. And that’s the other reason this topic has been on my mind. My manuscript-in-progress involves a college student, a botany major who is obsessed about disappearing plant species. Writing this novel requires far more scientific background than I have. I needed help.

Last year, about halfway through writing the first draft, I realized that my main character was interested in permaculture. A writing friend referred me to the Franklin Permaculture Garden at UMass. A student garden manager answered my initial email and invited me to visit. There’s nothing like wandering through the garden, swatting gnats and making notes and taking photos and asking questions to excite the muse.

When the first draft of the manuscript was done, the plot had a hole requiring scientific information to fill. I needed more help. Back to UMASS (let’s hear it for public higher education!), first for a meeting with a science librarian for background, and then an interview with a professor of plant pathology, who knew exactly what I needed and shared his excitement for the subject as well as his knowledge. The professor’s enthusiasm and his willingness to play the “what if” game with me, brought me full circle to Michael White's comments: in addition to lending credibility to the work, research helped me ground the story, develop the character and fire my imagination.

I’m always amazed – and so grateful – when people with expertise are generous in sharing their knowledge. Thank you again, Lilly, Macci, and Dan. Read More 
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Remembering Antonia

This week I've been thinking about Antonia Martinez, killed on March 4, 1970, during a student strike at the University of Puerto Rico. Many years later on a trip to that campus, my friend Rafael told me about Antonia. While he talked, we looked across the street to the balcony where she was shot. The image of the balcony and the story of her heroism stayed with me, and eventually it inspired a short short story. This story isn't specifically about Antonia's life and death, but it honors her. It was published in The Drum, in 2010 and is reprinted below:

"Watching Her."

Most of our battalion had rotated through guard duty at the palace. We knew her as a rosy girl who escaped her abuela and marched with us, two giant pink steps to each of ours, her thin arms swinging in perfect timing. Under our watchful eyes, she grew into a young woman, enchanting in her fierce concentration.

Those days, the troubles slashed families. Many of us had cousins, brothers even, with the rebels. We had kin who crossed the street to avoid us as we marched two by two on our rounds, wild sunlight flashing off our polished boots. Most of us had daughters or granddaughters her age; we hugged them often those last weeks, as the rebels’ numbers grew and their victories mounted.

One night last month she slipped down the moonlit path to the university, her slippers dancing to the coqui chorus of tree frogs. We suspected a young man and followed her, capturing our smiles behind our hands. She lost us in the narrow streets bordering campus, but by the next morning our informants gave up his name.

We warned her father, through the appropriate channels, of course. We should have known that girl wouldn’t back down at her father’s command or her mother’s weeping. Generations of breeding culminated in her staunch person. When she dragged her suitcase down the hill and joined her lover’s cell, she twisted the bloodlines of her family to bear arms against itself.

Still, we never dreamed it would go this far. We underestimated her zeal and her father’s too. When our orders came, we verified them with our commander, then shook our heads. Our assignment was simple, but we carefully planned every detail. That last evening we assembled in our places at the edge of campus facing the building where the rebels hid.

She and her young man stepped out together onto the crumbling third floor balcony. She came forward alone to the iron railing. The crowd packed the streets below, screaming her father’s name and burning his likeness. When she raised her fist, the crowd quieted. A coqui sang in the moment of stillness, in chorus with the clicks as we released the safeties. As she started speaking, her hair caught the scarlet of sunset.

We never considered how history would judge us. Still, at the last moment, those of us not carrying rifles closed our eyes.

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AWP Musings

It's the last day of AWP (the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) and I'm exhausted, sick, and totally invigorated. I'm sitting in one of the cafe areas of the Bookfair, sipping hot Earl Grey tea for my sore throat, listening to the melodic drone of a reading just beyond my range of hearing words. If I look past the round cafe tables, I can see the Red Hen Press sign. I'm happy.

Every year, friends ask why I come to AWP, even those years when I'm not on a panel or promoting a book. I'm not an academic writer. No university pays my way. It's hard to explain why I love it so much.

Partly, it's the programs. But honestly, some panels are terrific and some, not so much. This year, I attended panels on writing the other, on eco-fiction, on writing as witness and writing for social justice. I learned some things about the DIY book tour and writing with vulnerable populations. My nasty cough made me leave a few others early; I wished I could have stayed.

Partly, it's the books. I always leave with a few new ones, despite the impossibility of fitting them in my suitcase. I'm particularly thrilled to now own new poetry collections by Lesle Lewis and Kate Gale. I also return home with a list of books I've got to buy and read: Harbor by Lorraine Adams and The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway are high on the list.

And it's the book fair - it's crowded and noisy and overwhelming. But it's strong evidence that small presses and lit mags and MFA programs and community writing projects are many and varied, alive and well. I love that.

Mostly, it's the people. The planned meetings and the surprises. The writers and teachers who have been critically important in my writing life (Manette Ansay and Lee Hope) and my
publishing life (Mary Bisbee-Beek and Kate Gale and Mark Cull and Billy Goldstein). And then all the friends and acquaintances I love seeing Naomi Benaron and Julie Wu and Christine Byl and Robin Talbot and Candace Nadon and Ruthe Rohle and Pearl Abraham). It's getting to hear and meet my writing heroes, like Ann Pancake.

What it all comes down to is this: I come every year to be part of this writing world. I am so very grateful to be here. Read More 
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I've been thinking about blurbs

I’ve been thinking about blurbs. Endorsements, if you prefer a more euphonic synonym. They are apparently a necessary part of publishing a book, but do they make a difference to readers/book buyers? What are the strategies and etiquette for requesting and using them? How do we process the disappointment when requests are declined and the unexpected pleasure when a really good quote shows up in the inbox.

Do blurbs matter? Who knows. Greg Zimmerman writes on bookriot.com that “The name of the blurber matters much more than what the blurb actually says.”
In a forum on book covers and blurbs on awl.com, Kate Christensen writes, “I honestly have no idea how important blurbs are for the general reading public. Knowing what I know, whenever I see a blurb, I immediately assume the writer is friends with that person or has studied with them or babysat their kids—or slept with them or is blackmailing them or has a gun to their head. In other words, I give blurbs no credence whatsoever.”

What about you, fellow readers: do blurbs influence your book-buying decisions?

For many authors, the process of requesting blurbs ranges between uncomfortable and humiliating. On awl.com, Matthew Gallaway writes that “there was no connection I did not attempt to exploit, no matter how remote, and I still feel a bit “whored-out” from the whole experience” and Bennett Madison observes “I know there's supposed to be this whole very strict etiquette about asking for blurbs, but no one can actually agree on what that etiquette is.”

I’m not sure about the etiquette either, but here’s what I’ve learned after twice surviving the blurb-asking process:
• Ask early. Really early. Authors are busy people. If a blurb is needed in three weeks, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll get a positive response.
• Offer a bound manuscript in addition to/instead of a digital file. Many writers much prefer reading print on page.
• Check in with the blurber to make sure the manuscript/galley arrived, and include a gentle reminder of the due date.
• Thank the blurber. Profusely. Consider a finished signed book, chocolates, or a glass of wine.
• If you get a blurb, use it. If not on the book jacket (because you don’t always have control of that), then in press packets, websites, social media.

So if blurbs are here to stay, at least we can find the silver lining. We can be gentle with each other when requesting, writing, declining blurbs. Be grateful for the good fortune of finding readers and passing it on by generously supporting newer writers. It's about good literary citizenship and thanking the universe for the joy of this work.  Read More 
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Climate Justice First: an open letter to our New Left generation

Each New Year is a time of reflection, of looking forward, of hope. For the two of us it’s also a time to renew our commitment to progressive activism. Over the decades, this work has involved many of you and has addressed many different issues – antiwar and antinuke, civil liberties and economic justice, gender and racial equality – in our local communities and around the globe. Understanding the close connections and shared causes of these oppressions, we have always believed that activists should support each other as we each work on the issues that fire our passion.

But things have changed. Global corporate-driven industrialization and militarization are, with increasing momentum, driving our planet toward total biotic collapse. The other issues – mass imprisonment and food safety and reproductive rights and a living wage – are as important as ever, but climate change is upon us and we have entered a new and very dangerous territory. We are concerned that so few of our comrades from the sixties are actively engaged in confronting this overriding challenge. We probably won’t live to see global devastation, but we are leaving our children and grandchildren a legacy of hell on earth. If nations and corporations continue to act as they have, it is most likely that we will render significant portions of our planet uninhabitable in the next 50 to 100 years.

This feels both colossal and very personal. Our grandchildren, now one and five, along with their entire generation, will live much shorter and harsher lives unless we stop the corporate-led forces that are at this moment committing terracide.

There are many reasons we are tempted to avoid this fight. Fighting for climate justice compels us to learn a new scientific vocabulary, to redirect our attention to how we interact with the physical elements of our planet, the animals, plants and minerals. It forces us to face, yet again, the greed of corporations and the complicity of governments. It requires us to accept that both major political parties have deep ties to the polluters and their buddies, and cannot be trusted to make the necessary changes. This task is overwhelming, but our grandchildren’s generation is doomed if we don’t take it on.

There is hope. The scientific evidence is strong. The movements for climate justice are growing. We ask you to join us – to read the books and articles if you haven’t already, and to join the climate justice activists. Our collective work against poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, indigenous rights still matters a hell of a lot. But if we plunge our planet into an ecological abyss, it won’t matter who is on the Supreme Court, who has the right to vote or to marry whom, or what the minimum wage is.

Our generation may be graying, but we can do this. We’ve done it before. We can educate ourselves, set priorities, and work both locally and globally. We can start new groups or join existing ones. (Organizations that don’t call for changing the basic nature of capitalism include 350.org, Sierra Club, Climate Action Now. A Marxist analysis is provided in the Monthly Review and Deep Green Resistance has an even more basic critique.)

It will not be easy; those who profit from the planet-killing industries are powerful. There is no guarantee of success. But we know our friends and comrades can make a tremendous difference if we all put our minds to it. As we enter 2014, we can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than preventing the collapse of the miraculous web of plant and animal life on our majestic and fragile home.

by Robert and Ellen Meeropol
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Favorite reads of 2013: the ecstasy and the agony

It’s such pleasure every year at this time to look back over all the books I’ve read in the past twelve months and try to select my favorites. It’s a pleasure to remember how these books transported me far away, how they challenged my usual-thoughts and opinions, how they taught me things and prompted me to learn other things. Of course, it’s agony to choose, and next week I might do it differently. But these are some of the books that touched me most deeply in 2013.

A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra. This was the easiest book to put on my list; I think it’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. In fact, I read it twice this year (although I admit to skimming a very few scenes that I couldn’t revisit). Set in civil war Chechnya, it is brilliant and brutal and dark and frightening and gorgeous. It offers a close-up view of the worst and best in ourselves and I believed every word.

WHITE DOG FELL FROM THE SKY by Eleanor Morse. I often say that I most admire books that are set at the crossroads of political turmoil and character’s lives. Like Anthony Marra’s book, that’s exactly what Eleanor Morse does here. This novel is set in Botswana and South Africa during apartheid. It is powerful, beautifully written, and it’s one of the 2013 books that has stayed with me all year.

I’m a big fan of Wally Lamb’s previous novels so I eagerly anticipated the publication of WE ARE WATER. I wasn’t disappointed. This is a portrait of a family, a marriage, of children scarred by early events and traumas. It’s also a story about people breaking free of historical grief and secrets and finding joy. Like so much of Lamb’s work, it explores race and class and violence, as well as the redemptive powers of creative work. I was particularly interested in the structure of the book, in the masterful way the author reveals details of story, and back-story, from multiple points of view, in a nonlinear manner, so that the reader has the opportunity to play a major part in putting together the puzzle pieces.

I also had the feeling of solving a puzzle while reading Simon Van Booy’s THE ILLUSION OF SEPARATENESS. This World War II-era novel is told in flashbacks, in hints and bits and pieces, in seemingly unrelated vignettes relayed by a group of strangers. As the connections reveal themselves and the story evolves, the characters are no longer as alone. And neither is the reader. I really loved this book.

KIND OF KIN by Rilla Askew tells the story of an Oklahama man whose barn is used to shelter undocumented migrant workers. When Brown is sent to prison, his young grandson tries to set things right. Told through multiple points of view holding conflicting opinions about the events, Askew shows us a community at the explosive intersection of politics and loyalty.

Ruth Ozeki’s A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING is constructed around a dual narrative. There’s Nao, a bullied 16-year-old girl in Tokyo who writes a diary about her ruined father and beloved great grandmother who is a Buddhist nun. And there’s Ruth, the novelist who finds Nao’s diary in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, debris from the tsunami. The result is both a gripping story and a thought-provoking exploration of time, story-telling, and the wonderfully complicated connections between writer and reader.

In her second novel, THE COMFORT OF LIES, Randy Susan Meyers explores a tangled web of family yearnings, lies and regrets: Tia has an affair and gives up her baby. Caroline reluctantly adopts to please her husband. Juliette discovers that her husband had an affair that resulted in a baby. The author has exquisite skill at getting inside her characters most shameful places, revealing the truth and consequences of human actions, errors, and the possibility of reconciliation.

I dearly love novels with social justice themes, but somehow I missed LAYLA, a debut novel by Céline Keating, when it was published a few years ago. Layla is a young woman who does not share her mother’s lifelong political activism. But as her mother dies, Layla promises to follow her instructions to travel across the country, visiting the mother’s old friends and comrades from her activist past. The carrot is powerful: information about her long-missing, supposedly-dead father. Layla’s journey moved me enormously. I believed in her confusion, her growing awareness, her anger and loved her courage in facing what seemed like impossible contradictions between right and wrong.

This year, two nonfiction books made my favorites list. Bill Ayers’ PUBLIC ENEMY begins during the 2008 election debate when Barack Obama was asked about “a gentleman named William Ayers,” and replied that Ayers was “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” The story that follows, from death threats to cancelled speaking gigs and beyond, moves from the Vietnam War and Weatherman and life underground to parenting young children under siege. Ayers, a respected educator, author, and university professor, is at his most eloquent when he talks about children and learning, both in the classroom and the particular challenges in his own family. This memoir sizzles with energy.

In her amazing book IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD, Eve Ensler writes about her body and her illness; she also writes about the rape and torture of women in the Congo. Somehow, she connects these two stories in unflinching prose that opens individual suffering into something much bigger, something that challenges and joins each of us. This book is astonishing and courageous and important.

There are so many other books I loved this year – AT NIGHT WE WALK IN CIRCLES by Daniel Alarcón, SPIDER IN A TREE by Susan Stinson, THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahiri, ALL THIS TALK OF LOVE by Christopher Castellani – but I’m going to stop now. Really.

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